Upon watching The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, you will come to the realization that they really don't make musicals like this anymore. In fact, to call it a musical doesn't give it the credit it deserves. Porgy and Bess is where jazz, folk, Broadway, and orchestral music intersect — and the recent revival of it starring Bay Area native Alicia Hall Moran keeps its musical integrity and gives it a modern surge that is timely and soul-stirring.
George Gershwin's operatic masterpiece first hit the scene in the '30s and it shook things up a bit. For one, it was a work that dealt with an African-American community in the fictitious South Carolina town in the '20s named Catfish Row. That being said, the majority of the cast was black and people didn't exactly take to it considering the time period.
The story focuses on Porgy (played amazingly in this production by Nathaniel Stampley) and Bess (Moran). Porgy is a sweet guy with a crippled leg and Bess is a "happy dust" addict that gets around. When her brute of a boyfriend becomes wanted for murder, he escapes and Porgy, being the nice guy that he is, takes Bess into his house when no one else in the town will. The result is an unlikely romance that is drenched in soul and Gershwin-branded music that has withstood the test of time.
Alicia Hall Moran spent some time in the San Francisco Bay Area before heading off to the East Coast to study composition at Barnard and Columbia. She's performed in acclaimed concerts and is fluent in dance, jazz and classical music. She is also no stranger to Porgy and Bess as she performed in the Company of the workshop and was the Bess understudy to the Tony-award winning production. Needless to say, her music background is extensive, so much that she keeps it in the family. Her husband, Jason Moran is currently an artist in residence at the SF Jazz Center.
We had the chance to talk to Moran about her Porgy and Bess experience, maintaining her voice, and her first Broadway show.
What was your first experience with Porgy and Bess?
It was a huge musical happening in New York in — I think it was the '90s. I went to see it when it was done by New York City Opera and it was phenomenal. It was just the best thing I had ever seen there.
How would you explain Porgy and Bess to people who know nothing about it?
This show is music first. It’s not only a really good work by Gershwin, it's great on top of great on top of great! The first time the San Francisco orchestra played the overture for the first time in rehearsal, the cast gave them a standing ovation.
Then there's the classic "Summertime." It's pretty much a standard now.
Everybody knows "Summertime," but at first, I never really knew what it did in the show. I didn't understand who was singing it and why. To find out that it's a young mother singing to her baby was a really wonderful surprise.
What’s your favorite thing about playing Bess?
Well, she and I have some of the same issues. (laughs)
What would those be?
She can’t go anywhere. Wherever she goes a comment follows. She is an outsider, but because everybody’s eyes are always on her she is the center of everything at the same time. Sore on the outside yet sore at the center at the same time. It’s a real push and pull for her. I think what I enjoy about it is the range of emotions.
You perform eight shows a week. What do you do to maintain your stamina and your endurance?
I think music education is the key. I think when you know where the song is trying to go, then you know where in your body you need to go to make that song work. There is no trick... just no trick.
So basically music is your sport and you're an athlete.
It’s just like anything else. If you over use a muscle or use it the wrong way, it’s going to get sore and it's not going to be there for you. Your voice is inside of you and it’s an instrument. If you could take it out, clean it and put it in a case, it might be easier to take care of.
Do you have any pre-show rituals you’re willing to share?
I'm not like one of those people that lie and say shit like I gargle with water and honey. That don't do shit. (laughs) If it's broke, you can't put honey on it…but it does make you comfortable and comfort is a big important part of care.
Do you remember your first Broadway show?
I remember my mom bringing me to Starlight Express.I was begging and finally she took me and while I’m glad I saw Starlight Express, I look back on the other things that were being offered at that time on Broadway and it was an interesting choice.
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is currently playing at The Golden Gate Theater through December 8. For tickets, visit shnsf.com